“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017)
Written & Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Featuring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage
Willoughby: “I’d do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don’t match no one who’s ever been arrested, and when the DNA don’t match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn’t a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well… right now there ain’t too much more we could do.”
Mildred Hayes: “You could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of 8.”
Willoughby: “There’s civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town?”
Mildred Hayes: “Pull blood from every man in the country.”
Willoughby: “And what if he was just passing through the country?”
Mildred Hayes: “If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”
Willoughby: “Yeah well, there’s definitely civil rights laws that prevents that.”
If you do not know who Martin McDonagh is then you are missing out on a rare talent, he made his name as an Irish playwright, then pivoted to become a film writer/director that concentrated his work on unique as well as individual characters that follow their own arcs, not necessarily following the classic Hollywood plots or emotional beats audiences may be used to. With his first feature, the multi Oscar nominated “In Bruges” (2012) McDonagh gave a glimpse into what kind of film he wants to make, to be fair he has stuck to this through to this new film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017). This is an original story that has deep emotions running through it as well as its characters, they are real and many of these people have to face demons, they either beat them or succumb to them. The relative merits of each decision is left up to the audience which may or may not satisfy them.
There is no doubt that talented (and well known) actors grab the chance to work with McDonagh as well as espousing his dialogue. In this new film alone there are huge names such as Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage who could all be leads in their own projects, but come here to play very different characters than what they have been used to, except maybe Rockwell. As opposed to his other two efforts this new film deals with some weighty issues, as well as having a genuinely unlikeable protagonist at its heart in the character played by lead Frances McDormand.
The film is built around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) who is a divorced mother still grieving the violent rape and murder of her teenaged daughter Angela, seven months prior. Angry over the lack of progress in the investigation, she rents three abandoned billboards near her home, which in sequence read: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”
The townspeople are upset over the billboards’ content, including Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The open secret that Willoughby suffers from terminal pancreatic cancer adds to their disapproval. Mildred and her depressed son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) are harassed and threatened, but she stays firm, to Robbie’s chagrin.
There are some very real and definite highlights in this film that almost transcend its possible shortcomings. The first factor are the performances by Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson who all are incredible, as you would expect. The only character that really has any kind of arc that is recognizable is Dixon played by Rockwell who once again proves that he is one of the great character actors of his generation, at times he reminds me of Walter Houston in this mannerisms as well as the ability to fit within almost any film he is cast, as well as his innate ability to steal every scene he appears in. Rockwell gets to play drama, comedy, as well as action and of course show off his singing and dance moves, which now seems like a prerequisite once you cast him. It is a shame that he will not receive awards recognition as there are two other people that will overshadow his own efforts.
The two from this movie that will be in the awards hunt are lead actress Frances McDormand as well as writer/director Martin McDonagh who both are on top form in what they wanted to accomplish, but therein lies the problems with this film, as well as its subject matter which does not feel new or ground breaking – which is unlike what either of them probable wanted. The film revolves around the rape and murder of a girl as well as the repercussions that occur, in particular to her mother and brother. The issues I had with this movie was that there was just one way for her to deal with this devastation, that was to be a horrible person to everyone, even her own surviving child – she blames everyone else but takes no responsibility for her part, even at the end she transfers blame to a third party. The story is never resolved, in fact nothing is resolved, which means all the characters are stuck, while this is a reflection of real life it is not a completely accurate one, as in real life some people will have a resolution of sorts – the closest thing to resolution is the Woody Harrelson character, but that resolution is definitely not a happy one, just a deeply depressing one.
The central premise of the film I did enjoy, that is the attempted shaming of a Sheriff into a perceived action that will bring closure to Mildred, thereby pushing her life forward – she figures if she can have someone tangible to blame she will be alright – of course she is wrong as she was a broken person before the incident, she just did not know it, unlike the rest of her family who gave up on her years ago. The same can be said for other characters within the film with the exception of Dixon who finds some sort of recovery at the hands of someone who actually enjoyed his warped perspective but offers advice on how he can be a better person. In her selfish way though Mildred will ruin that for Dixon as she has an effect on him that will push him away from any salvation.
This is a very good film, made all the better by the dialogue as well as the actors delivering those lines, the threads that run through the plot are interesting but it never really rises above a diversion, that although on the surface seems to be heading somewhere just runs out of story with little regard for the ultimate fate of the family involved, which seems to be a shame as they all deserved much better from McDonagh. I have seen enough films with resolutions that are left up to the audience or are present to make a point, but here my feeling was that it was a little lazy on McDonagh’s part, something that may have worked in an editing suite for me does not work on the big screen. With all that said it is definitely worth seeing, and has to be one of the films of the year.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is available on DVD & Blu-ray.